The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat is a book-length dramatic monologue that owes much to both the traditions of epic poetry and the traditions of hagiography, or the study of saints’ lives. The speaker of the poem is Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is relating the tale of his famous voyage that may have taken him as far as North America. Brendan tells his story to a young scribe, who sets down his words. The interplay between Brendan’s story and his discursive comments to the scribe constitutes an ironic commentary on the poem itself, which is both the history of a voyage and the history of the poem’s composition. The title of the poem refers to the voyage made by a group of Irish monks led by Brendan on a type of pilgrimage called, alternately, “white martyrdom” or “blue martyrdom,” as Galvin explains in his introduction to the poem. A “white martyrdom” was a pilgrimage by a monk in the general sense, while a “blue martyrdom” was specifically a pilgrimage by sea. Abandoning their monastic lives and “every heart-softening face,” the monks in the poem embark on a sea voyage in an ox-hide boat called a curragh. The title, with its plural “saints” and singular “boat,” suggests a substitution of the smaller community on the boat for the larger monastic community in Ireland.

Although the characters in the poem are monks, the poem is in many respects a poem of sailors and the sea. It begins with Brendan relating sailorly advice: how to embark safely on a sea voyage, what time of year is fortuitous for sailing, and what kind of sailors to take along. The last is of particular importance, and Brendan includes a long list of the different sorts of people one ought not to select. He wants, instead, “a few with sense/ long on muscle.” He tells the young scribe this, Brendan says, because he knows the boy was raised “among fields and hills.” Galvin really is conditioning the reader, however, to understand the demands of the sea and to illustrate Brendan’s thought process as he begins to assemble his crew. Most of Galvin’s readers, like the young scribe, are not familiar with the nautical concerns Brendan describes. Galvin wants to make clear, as he said of the monks in his poem, that “these men were both religious contemplatives and hardy sailors.” Like all good poets, Galvin creates his own ideal readers by educating them about his subject.

Preparations for the voyage, the “blue martyrdom,” occupy a significant portion of the poem and provide many comic moments. The sailors are a superstitious lot and are quick to interpret natural occurrences as good or bad signs that will affect when they depart. For example, on the first attempt to leave, Owen, the most superstitious of the sailor-monks, interprets a dream about a flock of sheep on a hill. He questions Martin, the monk who had the dream, about whether the sheep were...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat has two main antecedents, one of which was the book The Brendan Voyage (1978), written by Tim Severin about his re-creation of Saint Brendan’s journey in the curragh. Some of the realistic details of Galvin’s poem come from this source. The more important of the sources was a historical document, the Voyage of St. Brendan, which contains the legends, written in Latin, that the Brendan of the poem dismisses as exaggeration. That text gave Galvin material that his more realistic Brendan could deride and caution his young scribe to avoid. The Latin text probably also provided Galvin with inspiration for the many figures of speech he includes that are typical of writings about saints’ lives and of epic poetry. He uses hyphenated epithets that are nearly Homeric in their intensity; warriors are “iron-chested ones,” for example, and the sea is a “seal pasture where every angel-haunted/ abbey stone sinks out of memory.”

Galvin’s poetic imagery is likewise rich, and his use of metaphor noteworthy. Within the space of a few lines, Brendan describes humans as no more than a “clutch of fish bones,” describes the Irish islands as a “stone beehive,” and discusses his monastic vows as a forgoing of the “lit/ eye of a woman and the poured-milk/ turn of her neck.” In just these few metaphors, Galvin illuminates Brendan’s theology, the Irish geography, and the devotion required when one takes monastic vows.

Although the poem is nominally a dramatic monologue, and the entire poem is related by Brendan to the young scribe at the monastery, Galvin energizes his poem with exchanges between Brendan and others. At several points Brendan directly addresses the young scribe, giving his narrative a conversational tone. He reminds the scribe repeatedly to...

(The entire section is 751 words.)